Scotland's Climate
Change Ambition

Scotland is a leader in the fight against climate change but we are determined to increase our ambition.

Climate change is one of the defining global challenges of our time and Scotland is internationally recognised as a world leader in tackling it. We have already succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 49% and we’re determined to get to 100% as soon as possible.

Net-zero emissions

Climate change experts often talk about achieving “net-zero” but what does that actually mean? It means cutting all our greenhouse gas emissions by 100%. The first step is to reduce Scotland’s emissions to as close to zero as possible. The second step is to find ways to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. We are already planting more trees and restoring peatlands to allow us to do exactly that. In future, we may be able to rely on carbon capture and storage technology too. Net-zero will be achieved once our remaining emissions can be balanced against the amount of greenhouse gases we are removing from the atmosphere.

As part of our commitment to tackling climate change, we have introduced a new Bill to Parliament which will make Scotland’s existing climate legislation even tougher. Independent experts say the targets it sets are “at the very limit of feasibility” but we think we can meet them if we all work together.  

Following the passage of the Bill:

  • Scotland will have the most ambitious target for 2050, in law, based on domestic effort alone
  • Scotland will continue to be the only country with legally-binding annual targets. That means being held to account on progress each and every year
  • Scotland will have the most ambitious targets, in law, for 2020, 2030 and 2040
  • Scotland will continue to be the only country which includes a fair share of all international aviation and shipping in its targets
  • Scotland’s targets will continue to cover all greenhouse gases – including those generated by land use changes such as methane and nitrogen oxides

The Bill immediately sets a 90% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2050. That will mean achieving net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide. In other words, being "carbon neutral".

The Bill also requires that the earliest achievable date for reaching net-zero for all greenhouse gases is regularly reviewed. As soon as a target date for reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions can be set credibly and responsibly, we will write that date into law. We will always strive for the most ambitious target possible, based on the best available expertise, and we want everyone in Scotland to play their part in achieving it.

The Climate Change Bill will write Scotland’s obligations under the Paris Agreement into domestic law.

The central aim of the Paris Agreement is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, attended the United Nations climate conference in December 2015 and the Scottish Government fully supports the high ambition of the landmark agreement reached in Paris.

Establishing the emissions-reduction targets each country needs to limit global warming is not straight forward. We have been advised by our independent, expert advisers, the UK Committee on Climate Change, that a 90% target for 2050 would be an ambitious response to the Paris Agreement. Laurent Fabius, former French Foreign Minister and host of the Paris climate conference, wrote to the First Minister on June 8 2018 describing the Bill as a "very positive step" and "a concrete application of the Paris Agreement".

UK Committee on Climate Change

The Committee on Climate Change is an independent, statutory body established under the UK Climate Change Act 2008. Its purpose is to advise the UK and  Scottish Governments, along with the other devolved administrations, on emissions targets and report to Parliaments on the progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change. It is made up of experts in the fields of climate change, science, economics, behavioural science and business.

When advising on target levels, the Committee on Climate Change considers various factors, including how Scotland can fairly contribute to the global effort. It also considers the likely impact of the targets on:

  • Jobs and the Scottish economy
  • Public spending and borrowing
  • People living in poverty or on lower incomes
  • Remote, rural and island communities

You can read the advice we received from the Committee on Climate Change here:

Our new 90 per cent target is at the absolute limit of what independent experts tell us can be achieved.

The Committee on Climate Change stated “a net-zero target for all greenhouse gases should not be set now”  because there is insufficient understanding of how it could be achieved.

The targets which we set in law must be credible – our targets are meaningful because we know that we can achieve them. But that does not mean they are easy! All our climate targets, for every year from 2020 to 2050, are extremely ambitious.  But we believe they can be achieved if we all work together.

Changes will be needed in every home and community across Scotland to achieve a 90% target. The changes will also benefit health, create valuable economic opportunities, save money, support new industries and provide international opportunities for Scottish businesses.  

Setting a target date for achieving a 100% reduction in emissions before a credible pathway for achieving it can be identified, would mean compromising  in one or all of the following ways:

  • Paying other countries to reduce emissions on our behalf
  • Removing some sectors from the target
  • Making legally-binding commitments which are dependent on undeveloped technological advances
  • Taking steps which would have a substantial detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing, jobs and Scotland’s economic growth

We are determined to achieve net-zero emissions and we will put a date for that into law as soon as we can do so responsibly.  Right now, according to the Committee on Climate Change, a 90% target is “at the very limit of technical feasibility”. We have a duty to ensure our plans do not compromise the well-being and prosperity of people in Scotland.  

Scotland is already pioneering research and development in many of the technologies which will be required.

Many of the technologies are not yet ready to be delivered at scale.

To achieve a 90% emissions reduction target by 2050, Scotland will need to establish carbon capture and storage systems in the 2020s and deploy them at an industrial scale in the 2030s. Putting a target date for net-zero into legislation now would force Scotland to make premature decisions on how best to use this technology. We believe that could prove to be a very expensive mistake.

Negative emission technologies

Carbon capture and storage is a process in which the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the combustion of fossil fuels and industrial processes is captured and transported offshore for permanent storage in subsea rock formations. This allows energy to be generated and other products which we need, such as plastics, cement and steel, to be produced with minimal greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage goes further, as energy is produced while greenhouse gases are actively removed from the atmosphere. Biomass, such as maize or rapeseed, is grown as an input to the combustion process.  While growing, the biomass absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. The emissions from combustion are then captured and stored.

We want to achieve our targets by focussing on actions which will also make Scotland a healthier, fairer and more prosperous place to live.

We have a strong track-record in delivering against targets. We have already reduced emissions by 49% since 1990. In western Europe, only Sweden has done better.

We are well on the road to fully decarbonising our electricity system – with 54% of Scotland’s electricity needs being met by renewables.

We want to keep Scotland at the forefront of the low carbon transition. We will enhance our reputation as a country of innovators and are determined to build on Scotland’s reputation as a renewable energy powerhouse.

Scotland’s first Energy Strategy sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for the future energy system in Scotland.

We have already set out how we will ensure all Scottish homes achieve an Energy Performance rating of at least C by 2040, where technically feasible and cost effective. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the country and tackle fuel poverty. The Energy Efficient Scotland Route Map will guide the decisions which we will be making, along with our partners, over the next 20 years.

To meet a 90% emissions reduction target by 2050, we will have to decarbonise our energy supply completely and transform how we heat our homes. One way to meet even higher targets would be to pay other countries to make emissions reductions on our behalf. This could be done by purchasing international offset credits. It is estimated that it would cost Scotland £15 billion to purchase the credits we would need to meet a net-zero target in 2050. We believe we should do the hard work ourselves and invest in Scotland’s future.

We are also opposed to policies which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions but have negative side-effects.  Food, for example, cannot be produced without generating greenhouse gas emissions. Requiring reductions in emissions from farming beyond those which can be achieved through efficiency and technology would mean reducing the amount of food produced in Scotland and importing more from abroad. That’s just one example of why we need to wait until there is a credible and responsible pathway to achieve net-zero emissions before we put it into law.

Fighting climate change is one of the Scottish Government’s top priorities. Others include tackling inequality, growing a sustainable economy, ensuring fair work for all, and improving the life chances for all of our young people. We must balance our environmental, social and economic responsibilities. We will legislate for a net-zero target date when we can be sure that, based on the best scientific understanding, it is achievable and doing so will not compromise the well-being of the people of Scotland.

We will legislate for a net-zero target date when we can be sure that, based on the best scientific understanding, it is achievable and doing so will not compromise the well-being of the people of Scotland.
A detailed information and analysis paper explores the issues covered here in more depth.